ANALYSIS-Golf-Tiger's return nearly all good news for the sport
LOS ANGELES, March 30 |
LOS ANGELES, March 30 (Reuters) - With his extraordinary gift for near-perfect timing, Tiger Woods announced his return to the winner's circle with a sensational victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando on Sunday.
In only his third tournament back since reconstructive knee surgery, the American world number one overhauled a five-stroke deficit to triumph by a shot, giving golf and sport in general a much-needed boost.
Woods's eight-month absence dealt golf a major blow, especially at a time when the global financial crisis had begun to take a firm hold.
He shut down his 2008 campaign immediately after winning the U.S. Open in June and a Tiger-less golf world automatically led to plunging television ratings.
For many people, Tiger Woods is golf and he has almost single-handedly ushered in an era of multi-million dollar endorsements and lucrative appearance money since turning professional in 1996.
His Afro-American-Asian background has spread the sport to an audience far beyond its traditional image of male, white and middle-class and he has become the world's best known and most marketable athlete.
Golf, in his absence, began to resemble the fairytale ball without Cinderella and his long-awaited return at last month's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship was celebrated by the PGA Tour with huge relief and joy.
Just two events later, Woods clinched his 66th Tour title in vintage fashion by holing a 16-foot birdie putt at the last and all eyes will be on the game's leading player when he bids for a fifth green jacket at next month's U.S. Masters.
"We need him back and we're all excited to have him back," said American world number two Phil Mickelson, a double winner on the 2008 PGA Tour. "It's evident the game needs him.
"The economy has been struggling, the sponsors have been struggling and to have him back is so critical for the sport."
However, the return of an in-form Tiger does not mean all is now well within the golfing world.
Because of the deteriorating global economic landscape, the PGA Tour faces an uncertain future with turmoil in the auto and financial services sectors leaving the sport vulnerable to the loss of marketing and advertising dollars.
Eleven of the Tour's title sponsors come from the financial sector and many of these contracts are up for renewal after the 2010 season.
Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University, told Reuters: "I almost think it will become a two-tier golf tour -- the tournaments Tiger plays and sponsorship on them and then the events Tiger doesn't play.
"He's the world's most recognisable athlete and the most important person in that regard ... (but) in a global recession even his power is reduced."
Yet golf clearly benefits with the return of the 14-times major champion and Boland got a taste of Tiger's impact while dining in a restaurant on Sunday evening.
"Dozens of people were surrounding a television there in the bar," he said. "I thought they were looking at basketball but no, they were looking at Tiger winning a tournament whose name I can't even remember. That's significant.
"The tour last year got a taste of life without Tiger and they didn't like it very much. This is an era where sponsors are pulling out.
"To have the most recognised personality back on top of the leaderboard for a number of rounds is connecting those sponsors to a broader public via television and puts the winds back in the sales of sponsors who are doing golf tournaments."
There are some, though, for whom Woods has become bigger than the game itself, and this they deplore. His detractors bemoan the plethora of Tiger headlines in newspapers whenever he tees it up in a tournament, regardless of how he plays.
With Woods competing, the media gather like moths around a candle fame. In contrast, a tournament without Woods is almost viewed as a non-event.
No one can argue, however, that when Woods wins titles in Tiger-like style, producing moments of magic almost on demand when they matter most, he provides golfing theatre beyond the reach of his rivals.
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Chicago, Editing by Ed Osmond, To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)
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